OUR FRIEND (2021) is based on the true story originally published in Esquire, ‘The Friend: Love is Not a Big Enough Word’ written by Matthew Teague. After receiving life-altering news, a couple finds unexpected support from their best friend, who puts his own life on hold and moves into their family home, bringing an impact much greater and more profound than anyone could have imagined. Directed by BLACKFISH (2013)’s Gabriela Cowperthwaite and written for the screen by Brad Ingelsby, who also wrote Ben Affleck’s latest film THE WAY BACK (2020).
Watching Casey Affleck in his role in OUR FRIEND, it’s hard not to make comparisons to MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016) but this is a very different kind of emotional portrayal, though he still brings his trademark commitment and intense energy. His character doesn’t always show his emotions, closing off slightly to deal with the harrowing situation his family is in but the moments where he truly lets them out, are unsurprisingly gripping. The surprise here is Jason Segel, he rarely steps into the realm of drama and while his character does have a strong funny bone, he shows a new side of himself and the sincerity that he can bring to a role. At times it feels as though Dakota Johnson doesn’t get quite as much focus but she brings a lot of charisma and confidence, then when things go downhill for Nicole, she really kicks it up a notch and brings an incredible vulnerability and heart-breaking quality that’s genuinely affecting to watch.
It’s a difficult thing to bring such a personal, intimate and emotional true story as OUR FRIEND to the screen without coming across as overly sentimental, saccharine or inauthentic, and while this film walks that line well, it can’t quite reach the depth that it was going for. That’s not to say that it isn’t emotional, this is definitely a film to get the tears flowing, you simply won’t be able to help it but there’s something missing. The actors all give great performances and the direction has a personal, slightly romantic and touching style to it and yet, it doesn’t create a deep, meaningful connection, it strikes at your sympathy but not harshly at your heart, to leave you breathless like it had the potential to. Although it gets closer with its choice to not make Nicole’s decline clear cut, showing the harsher, bitter side of terminal illness.
There’s a distinct possibility that the struggle to cross that line is because this story’s focus is not Matt and Nicole, it’s about their relationship with Dane (Segel) and how people perceive his presence in their life with prejudice. Here’s a man who puts his life on hold to help his best friends in their time of need; it’s selfless, kind and generous but all their friends can see is a middle-aged man with no tangible career or partner, crashing in their house. While countless films have touched upon adult friendships, this one feels new, it very sweetly explores how meaningful of a place it had in their lives and how they’re all the better for it. Affleck, Johnson and Segel build that chemistry and friendship flawlessly, combined with the writing it’s utterly natural and heart-warming to see that sort of unrelenting care and connection.
Telling the story in a non-linear fashion is nothing surprising for today’s cinema but a balance needs to be struck with that back and forth to ensure a smooth, followable story and the film stumbles in that regard. While it checks the followable box, smooth it is not, it begins to feel like an indiscriminate pattern that you can’t quite nail down, leaving a few loose threads in the mix. It’s another factor that restricts it from hitting harder and it potentially could have improved the film to have a lighter hand on the editing to give it more space to breathe. OUR FRIEND explores a unique and special friendship that endures an immensely difficult time and will get the tears flowing. Affleck, Johnson and Segel are a strong trio, each of them has something different to bring but they all do it excellently. It’s a touching, heart-breaking and emotional story but it feels as though something was holding it back, it should be one of those films that leaves you shattered but it can’t quite get there. It moves around too much in their past and present and seems as though a smoother path would have pushed it further. It’s an incredible true story about the power of friendship that’s certainly worth telling and worth watching but the jury is out on whether it did true justice to this story.